The street was deserted. Dense fog muted any sound and pressed down ominously. Nervous, he looked back over his shoulder, but saw nothing.

A few steps more and then Don thought he heard something. The dog, a beagle, emerged from the darkness and followed in his footsteps. Its eyes had a faint green glow, as if reflecting auto headlights, but his body was a gray blur. There were no headlights here at all — just the dense fog.

He walked more quickly, but the beagle kept pace. Then he thought he saw more glowing eyes behind the beagle, and went faster. Two, then three more beagles appeared, eyes glowing weirdly in the fog. Don began to jog, then started to run when more beagles appeared. The lead dog raised its head, “Aroooo!” All the beagles joined the chase, surging after him. There must have been several dozen. He could hear them howling and gaining on him. When he tripped and fell forward, a mass of bodies piled onto him. He screamed and writhed, fighting to rise.

Don bolted upright into the dark room, and threw off the covers and pillow. In the dim light from the half-open blinds and his Star Wars night light, he was relieved to see his bedroom empty of dogs.

If only his dreams could be.

It wasn’t really a secret project, but it was confidential and information was closely held. Sheila had been promised that when the work was done, they would be able to write it up for professional journals. However, the results were not substantial enough to do anything with and the project had basically died a slow death from lack of interest and the cost. At the end, it was necessary to eliminate the subjects.

Normally, the vet school would terminate their research subjects and incinerate the bodies. However, someone from the Department of Energy, who had sponsored the work, had pointed out that the residual plutonium in the beagle carcasses would be concentrated in the ash, and would likely contaminate the furnace and become a disposal problem, bringing unwanted attention to the project.

Being in the middle of a relatively liberal university meant that there were lots of people keeping an eye out for all kinds of activities that might be practical, but unpopular. For the project using plutonium, Sheila had consulted with the school legal, security and environmental staff, as well as the DOE, and determined that burying the beagles on some unused land was the best way to dispose of them.

The job of euthanizing and disposing of the thirty beagles fell to Don, who was usually handed the dirty work. No one else wanted to be involved, so the details fell almost totally on him. However, unbeknownst to anyone, Don had developed an affinity for the beagles and the task was pure horror for him. It haunted him for months after it was done. He had tried to atone for the deaths by burying them in shallow unmarked graves in a remote part of the university property where they would never be disturbed.

Sheila, with the failure of the beagle studies, had shifted her focus to the uptake of metals by plants, and in order to fulfill her advanced degree, conceived a project to test contamination mitigation by various plants. Phytoremediation was the next big thing in cleanup and would help her recover from the beagle disaster. The obvious candidates were mining wastes, extremely common throughout the West, and she worked with a couple of professors to get good contacts in the mining industry. In addition, her old friends at the Department of Energy (DOE) got interested in her ideas, and offered her access to abandoned uranium mines and mills where they had responsibility.

They met to hear her proposal. Her written brief had already been reviewed, but this was her chance to sell the project. The target audience was the DOE brass, the mining company president, an Environmental Protection Agency rep, and her dissertation advisor. Other client staff attended along with a few of the school staff who would help with the project implementation.

“The scheme we’ve developed is relatively simple,” she began, “For various contaminated soils, we will plant a variety of crops likely to pull out the metals, and measure the bioaccumulation effectiveness. In order to overcome the differences in physical settings among the contaminated sites, we propose to bring the contaminated soils to the research site and farm them as similarly to each other as possible, limiting any environmental differences impacting the results.”

She pointed to an overhead projection showing a grid overlying a field. “We’ll put the contaminated soils from different sites in parallel strips, then plant different crops in rows at right angles across the strips.”

The next slide identified contaminated material types from several sites, “We expect to use soils from lead smelters, gold/silver mill tailings, uranium mill tailings, and possibly some others.” She nodded to the DOE brass. They had requested that she also test ‘unspecified’ waste from the nearby nuclear weapons plant. Of course, their funding made the whole project feasible, so that was not a problem.

The EPA rep asked, “What types of plants are you proposing?”

Putting up the next slide, she noted, “Rapeseed, sunflowers, ragweed and several grasses will be sown. At the request of a local politician, industrial hemp was added to the mix. Apparently there is some public pressure to create a hemp market for industrial uses and clothing, in part to improve the image of the marijuana-related material.” A few chuckles ensued. “However, hemp is very low in hallucinogens and has been shown to be effective in remediating some metal contamination, so it’s worth a try.”

After a few more questions, each of the involved groups expressed their support. They each agreed to transport their materials for her, reducing the total cost of the study.

The DOE rep, Perleman, pulled her to one side, “Given the nature of the studies and the materials used, we insist that only general information about the project be public knowledge. In addition, a remote site should be used to minimize potential public exposure.”

Sheila had already looked at various property controlled by the school. “I have in mind one of about sixty acres that has some disturbance, but suits the physical needs of the study, and is out of the way where access can be easily controlled.”

“Excellent. We’ll be glad to provide any communications or security support that you may require. You will minimize any public information about the nuclear plant materials, but we are very interested in the possibilities.” As he walked away, Sheila wondered exactly what materials they were going to send her.

She introduced each of the clients to Charley, the old farmer that they used for their field work — plowing, planting, mowing and harvesting. He was dressed up for the presentation — a clean western-cut shirt, relatively clean but worn jeans, and scuffed-up farmer boots (not pointy-toed, and with a low heel. Charley felt that cowboy boots were for posers.). Now Don was gone, Sheila would rely on Charley for most of the labor. He would work with the clients to coordinate the delivery of the contaminated soils and their distribution on the site.

The DOE would contribute three soil types: uranium mill tailings, and two from a nearby nuclear weapons facility — sludge from industrial wastewater treatment and contaminated soils. The mining company had agreed to provide spoils from mining in Telluride, currently stored in a massive pile on the east edge of the town, containing zinc, lead, copper and other metals. (Even though Telluride was named for a type of gold ore, none was actually ever mined there.) EPA would provide soils from a local lead smelter.

The soils would be laid down in five strips about two hundred feet wide and just over two thousand feet long for about ten acres per soil. With the six plant types, each soil/plant combination would cover roughly one and a half acres. Initially, the soils across the whole site would be characterized and plowed. Then each strip of soil would be deposited, smoothed and characterized. Planting would follow.

As the project proceeded, Charley worked well with Sheila, and she came to rely on him significantly. He basically controlled the test site, leaving her to do the lab work, managing the results, and writing the reports, along with her additional studies. They met weekly and he took her out to the site whenever there was something to see. He kept the site secure, and had installed a chain link fence around the site in accordance with the DOE request. She doubted if anyone else except for her had even been out there.

Sheila was confounded by some of the soil lab results. She had received expected results from the silver mining spoils, the lead smelter and uranium tails. She was surprised by the mix of radioactive materials in the weapons plant sludge and soils. There was a whole cacophony of radioactive materials and metals in there that significantly complicated the lab analyses. Luckily her work on the plutonium-beagle studies gave her some familiarity with them, but she knew she’d be spending a lot more time in the lab. The absence of plutonium made things a little easier from a security standpoint, though. “Thank God for Charley!” she thought.

Charley met Don at the coffee shop up by the school. “So, how’s life these days?” he asked the bedraggled young man.

“Barely hanging in there,” Don replied truthfully. “I switched to a night job, so I can sleep during the daylight hours. But, I’m having a lot of trouble sleeping anyway, and I’ve only found one thing that helps.”

Charley nodded, he could smell the marijuana on Don’s clothes. “Maybe we can help each other, then. I need to obtain quite a bit of seed for a specific project. I can pay, but I don’t have any contacts in that arena.”

Don looked knowingly at Charley, “I never took you for the drug dealer type.”

“Yeah, but I’ve got the sweetest deal going, and I need to take advantage of the opportunity that’s presented. Retirement is in my near future.” He explained about the study, the site with limited access and his near-complete control of the field operation.

Don looked thoughtful, then agreed to get back to him shortly.

A week later, Don and Charley met again. “I’ve got a contact, but he wants to be able to see the site. Also, he wants a cut, as do I.” Charley nodded. “He’ll provide the seed, you do all the work through harvest, then he’ll sell it and give us our cut.”

“We’ll be taking some of it for other use, not to sell,” Charley noted, and Don agreed.

It was easier than Charley thought it would be. Sheila came out one day while he was planting. He had explained to her that the on-the-ground layout would be a little less pretty than on paper, and she was mostly interested in the layout of the grid and the markers he used to separate crop and soil types, and to define sample locations.

“It looks pretty good,” she told him. “Keep it up.”

As the plants grew, Charley was a little concerned that the differences among the plants would be too obvious. He had arranged the planting so that the marijuana was shielded somewhat from casual view, hidden mostly by the ragweed and hemp. He collected samples of the official plants for Sheila routinely and each time he collected a small sample for Don. The reports from both Sheila and Don were encouraging.

Soon, Don brought his contact, Leonard, out to the site. Leonard was impressed and after a close inspection, noted it was time to start harvesting the tips and begin sales. He hoped Charley would be able to continue to cut and sell throughout the growing season, then do a major harvest of the whole crop before the weather changed. That suited Charley’s plan as well.

Charley began collected clippings from the ‘dope’ plants, as he called them, and passed them on to Don who would keep part for himself before passing it on to his source. At first the money from sales trickled in, then got bigger. Charley began to feel like a drug dealer, and Don seemed to be less and less focused. It worried Charley, but Don ignored his advice.

They met every Thursday evening before Don went to work and after Charley had obtained more clippings. Charley thought that something was going on with Don’s eyes.

“Nah,” Don responded, “I’m working outside at night more and I feel like my vision has improved. It just makes it harder to take bright lights now.” He tapped his sunglasses, “These help a lot.”

Sheila began to worry over the results. The metal uptake by most of the plants was as expected, and indeed, the hemp was showing remarkable ability to absorb the contaminants. The biggest uptake was by the hemp for the uranium and other radionuclides. However, she was seeing plutonium in the hemp and some other results where there shouldn’t be any. It caused her to rerun nearly all of her samples including the soils background tests. Where could the plutonium be coming from?

After a few weeks, she got a call from Perleman, the DOE guy. “I got your interim report, and I’m concerned about the appearance of plutonium contamination in some of your results. I wasn’t aware that we included any plutonium in our materials.” He paused, “In fact, we specifically screened for plutonium prior to clearing the material for your use.”

“I know,” Sheila replied, “Our baseline testing showed the same thing — no plutonium. I can’t explain it.”

“Well, I suggest you look for contamination in your lab. It has to be coming from your equipment.”

“The only project we’ve had that included plutonium was the beagle studies, and we scrubbed everything at the end of that work. Anyway, if it was lab contamination, it would have shown up in the baseline sampling.” She paused a minute, “I suppose you guys aren’t doing any other work using plutonium with any other researchers here?”

“Not a chance. Find the problem or we’ve got real trouble. It won’t turn out well.” He hung up.

“No shit, Sherlock,” she told the empty phone.

Don showed up for their regular Thursday meeting looking pretty bad, and the sunglasses didn’t hide the weirdness in his eyes.

“What’s the problem?” Charley asked.

“It’s the dreams,” he replied, “They’re getting worse, and I’ve started seeing … things.” He shuddered and looked around nervously.

“Have you seen anyone about it? Maybe you’re over-medicating.”

Don laughed at that, “That’s the only thing that’s keeping me sane. And now, I can get it cheaply – free.” He picked up the bag Charley had delivered and left.

Charley wasn’t so sure that Don was right on either count.

Shiela had gotten help from other researchers to work through the equipment and protocols to determine if the plutonium was actually in the samples and where it was from. Everything pointed to the lab work being proper and not the source of the contamination. She asked to visit the site with Charley.

“So, we’re getting these anomalous plutonium results from the samples, and I’ve verified that it must be coming from the site.”

Charley looked puzzled, “But we cleared the site beforehand. All the on-site soils were tested before the contaminated soils were brought in. In addition, we tested the contaminated soils as they were placed. There’s no plutonium there.”

“But it’s there anyway. Where could it be from?”

Charley shook his head, and they agreed to meet again to try to figure it out.

The next Thursday, Don brought Leonard to their meeting. Charley passed over the bag, and was even more concerned about Don.

Leonard nodded towards him, “He’s a wreck. Keeps seeing eyes or dogs or something. He got fired from his job and just gets by on what we pay him.” He shook his head, “But the good news is that whatever you’re growing is really good stuff. Are you lacing it with anything I should know about?”

“No, it’s just growing that way.”

“Good, keep it up. We’re getting more for this stuff than before, and your cut just got bigger.” He handed Charley an envelope. “I’d keep an eye on your buddy, though. He’s being a little flaky; you should cut him back a little, I’d say.”

At the mention of ‘eye’ Don twitched and looked around nervously.

Based on Sheila’s concerns, Charley decided to inspect the field more closely that he usually did. He first walked the entire perimeter fence, and found it intact. However, he did notice a relatively fresh place where the soil under the fence had been dug out, probably by a small animal. He had seen rabbits in the field occasionally.

Walking the rows, he noticed some freshly disturbed places in the soils in the far corner of the site. It didn’t appear to interfere with the plants, but most of them were in the area where he had planted the ‘dope’. Come to think of it, that section was where the ground had been previously disturbed. He had sampled the surface soils there specifically because of the prior disturbance, but nothing unusual had shown up. He’d have to think on it.

Meanwhile, Sheila was becoming more and more concerned about the source of the plutonium. The levels had actually increased over time. Perleman was breathing down her neck and she didn’t know what to do. She met with Charley again.

“Can you think of anything about the site that could cause plutonium contamination?” she asked him.

Charley seemed a little evasive, but answered, “We sampled the whole site ahead of time for background, and found no plutonium.” She nodded agreement. “And we sampled each load of soil that was brought in, and no plutonium.” She nodded again. “And it’s not lab or equipment contamination?” She nodded again. “I know we sample the irrigation water routinely.” She nodded again.

He thought a minute, “Could the DOE or someone be spraying plutonium around the site?”

She replied, “Perleman says no. The only plutonium anywhere near this place was in the beagle studies, and they’re long gone.” She thought a minute, “Is any of the equipment we use now from that work?”

“No, Don got rid of everything and even buried the carcasses so as not to contaminate anything. The DOE paid us to get rid of everything.”

“Maybe we should contact him and ask.” Sheila suggested. “He might know something.”

“That’s not a good idea. I run into him occasionally and he’s kinda gone off the deep end and is pretty flaky.” Charley hesitated, “But I tell you what, I’ll look him up and see if he has any information that could help us.”

Charley had to postpone their Thursday meeting by a couple of hours. Don reluctantly agreed, but was extremely nervous when they met. He put the bag in his car and wanted to leave as soon as he could. Charley stopped him, but he fidgeted throughout their conversation.

“Don, pay attention,” Charley instructed him, “Do you know of anything that could have gotten plutonium anywhere near the field where we’re working?” Don looked at him stupidly. “You know, the field off the county road behind the hogback past the lab.”

Don stared vacantly for a minute and Charley thought he hadn’t gotten the question.

“Beagles,” he shuddered. “Beagles are coming. They’re coming for me!” He screamed, jumped up and ran away. Charley tried to follow, but Don was gone into the darkness.

In Don’s mad rush he left his car and only wanted to get away. He could feel the fog moving in on him, and was sure that he could see murky shapes moving in the fog. He could feel their glowing eyes tracking him in the darkness. The faster he went, the closer they came to spotting him.

The car was jammed with couples returning from a fraternity party, heading out to the lake for more drinking and a little messing around. The driver was pretty lit, and was a little distracted by his date nibbling on his ear with her hand in his lap.

Don looked back over his shoulder nervously — but saw nothing.

A few steps more and Don thought he heard something. Then he saw the dog, a beagle, emerging from the darkness, following in his footsteps. Its eyes had a faint green glow, like the luminous reflection of animal eyes in headlights, but his body was a gray blur. There were no headlights here at all, just the dense fog.

He walked more quickly, but the beagle kept pace. Then he thought he saw more glowing eyes behind the beagle, and went faster. Two, then three more beagles appeared, eyes glowing weirdly in the fog. Don began to jog, then started to run when more beagles appeared. The lead dog raised its head, “Aroooo!” All the beagles joined the chase, surging after him. There must have been several dozen. He could hear them howling and gaining on him. When he tripped and fell forward, a mass of bodies piled onto him. He screamed and writhed, fighting to rise.

The driver thought he saw something in the road, and jammed down on his horn. Suddenly there was a definite shape in front of the car, and his headlights reflected a luminous pair of eyes attached to a human face that appeared to be screaming as they slammed into it.

The next day, Perleman called Sheila. “We’ve got to shut it down. We can’t have it getting out that there is plutonium contamination on unrestricted land near a school campus. We and the school would get shredded in the press, in the Legislature and in Congress. I’m sending over our lawyers to meet with the school officials, and contractors will be there tomorrow to remove everything.”

She was stunned and tried to ask questions, but Perleman shut her down. “Pull everything together, your results, notes, samples, everything. Our people will scrub it for any reference to the plutonium, and once it’s clean, we’ll get it back to you. I want you to understand that this is covered in your grant contract, you agreed to our control of the information. Any leaked information will be prosecuted under the official secrets act.”

She was too stunned to reply.

Once he got the news from Sheila, Charley made a mad dash to the site and pulled up all the ‘dope’. He tried to call Don, but got no answer, so he contacted Leonard directly. He revealed little about the circumstances, but Leonard agreed to take the materials off his hands, to Charley’s great relief.

He did notice that the disturbed areas he had seen earlier had returned to normal. Had he just imagined them? It didn’t matter, since the DOE crews dug up the whole site and took all the materials to an unnamed off-site DOE repository.

“Good riddance,” Charley thought. Retirement didn’t seem that far away.